Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Minsoo Sohn in Beethoven, Liszt arrangements, Ravel, and Kirchner at Jordan Hall, Friday, April 30, at 8 pm.

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Minsoo Sohn, Pianist
Minsoo Sohn, Pianist

Minsoo Sohn plays Beethoven, Liszt arrangements, Ravel, and Kirchner at Jordan Hall, Friday, April 30, at 8 pm.

Leon Kirchner, Interlude II
Beethoven, Sonata No.30 in E Major Op.109
Ravel, La Valse

Beethoven-Liszt, Adelaide
Schubert-Liszt, Gretchen am Spinnerade
Schubert-Liszt, Der Müller und der Bach
Mozart-Liszt, Réminiscences de Don Juan

I first heard Minsoo Sohn play at an Emmanuel Music Bach concert in January 2008, where he played with a chamber group as well as solo, in a couple of Busoni arrangements of Bach chorale preludes. I was so impressed with the musicality and seriousness of his playing, that I made a note to follow his future appearences. Although he has been very active, this has been my first opportunity to hear him play a full solo recital.

As his biography states, Minsoo Sohn was born in Korea and began piano studies at age three. One of his earliest inspirations was Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for violin. While violin first captured his attention, he grew to respect the piano’s endless potentialities and range. Before coming to the States, he won numerous national competitions including Jung Ang, Donga, Chopin and the Korean Music Association competitions. Sohn moved to Boston to study with Russell Sherman and Wha Kyung Byun at the New England Conservatory where his study was awarded the Artist Diploma in 2004.

In October 2006, Minsoo Sohn became the First Laureate of the Calgary’s Honens International Piano Competition, for which he played both Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. He also won multiple prizes at the major international competitions during his time of study at the NEC, such as the Silver medal at the Cleveland, First prize at the Hilton Head, Third prize and Busoni prize at the Busoni, as well as Laureate prizes at the Queen Elizabeth and the Santander Competitions.

Since his triumph at the Honens, Minsoo Sohn has toured extensively throughout North America, Europe and Israel at the important venues including Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio, Boston’s Jordan Hall, the Gardner Museum and for the Harvard Musical Association, Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, Chicago’s Cultural Center, Cleveland’s Severance Hall, San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre, Spain’s Palacio Festivalle de Cantabria, Italy’s Academia Cusano, Israel’s Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Brussels’ Palais des Beaux Arts and Theatre Royal de la Monnaie and Munich’s Gasteig. He has also appeared at the Monadnock Festival and numerous international festivals. He has collaborated with leading conductors such as Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Jane Glover, Jahja Ling, David Hoose, and Roy Goodman, and has performed with orchestras including Boston Symphony, Orchestre Symphonique de Québec, Israel Philharmonic, National Orchestra of Belgium, Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, among others. In January 2010, he collaborated with Mark Morris Dance Group along side Russell Sherman and Orchestra of Emmanuel Music in the Boston premiere of “Mozart Dances.” An avid chamber musician, Mr. Sohn has performed with the Aviv Quartet, Cecilia Quartet and Ysaÿe Quartet, Israel Camerata Woodwind Quintet and Gryphon Trio.

This recital was sponsored by the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, based in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which organizes an impressive variety of concerts, festivals, and art competitions, not only in the Boston area, but reaching out all over North America.

Minsoo Sohn began with a haunting late work by Leon Kirchner, Interlude II (2003). Predominantly wistful in mood, it contains passages which rival Debussy’s most delicate timbres. Keeping a firm grasp of its shape and structure, he created a magical realization of these floating colors and harmonies with a generous use of the pedal. His mature empathy for Kirchner’s late-life introspection and fullness of heart was truly impressive. This brief piece, barely six minutes long, is so rich, and Sohn explored it so deeply that it felt like a major event.

Mr. Sohn’s next offering was Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op. 109, which could be the culmination of any substantial recital, but the dreamy opening of the first movement was well prepared by the Kirchner. Using a style of pedalling he can only have learned from Russell Sherman, he brought a full measure of color and atmosphere to the first movement. His variety of tone and wide dynamic range gave a most eloquent voice to Beethoven’s abrupt modulations and mercurial shifts of mood. In the scherzo, Beethoven’s emotions are channelled into a grand, rather angry outburst, before they wander off again into another range of mental states. Sohn gave this all the weight and fullness of sound it required, while coloring the rest with a rich palette. In the concluding variations, his statement of the theme was not as inward as some pianists understand it, but rather full of resigned dignity. After the turbulence of the first two movements, Beethoven, in the variations, arrives at a point of stability, in which his expression can build progressively without straining at inner or outer boundaries. Mr. Sohn’s steady pace and the marked pauses between the variations were reinforced this equilibrium. In the final transcendent variations he showed us Beethoven, not so much floating in higher worlds, but looking up from a firm stance on the ground at the unsurpassedly grand vision.

Sohn moved on to an extraordinary reading of Ravel’s La Valse. He was every bit equal to the tonal and formal magnitude of the work, as well as its evanescent colorism. He balanced this, however, with strong accents and a clarity that only the most virtuosic technique can bring. As the centerpiece of the program, just before intermission, it mediated the introspective substance of the first two pieces with the bravura of the second part.

Most unusually, Minsoo Sohn devoted the rest of the program to opera and song arrangements by Franz Liszt, of which he is especially fond. He even continued to play more of them as encores. Sohn’s consummate virtuosity allowed him plenty of room to attend to the musical and emotional qualities of the music. What’s more the origins of the first three arrangements in masterpieces of the German Lied started him off with emotional substance. Most agree that Réminiscences de Don Juan is one of the most interesting and original of Liszt’s transcriptions, and Sohn did it full justice, not only with energy and flair, but a keen sensitivity to the sometimes bizarre states of mind Mozart’s Don Giovanni evoked in Liszt, as if he were listening to it (or remembering it) through Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. In this way a series of piece which might have been tedious in other hands engaged and even fascinated the audience. Minsoo Sohn more than earned the lengthy and warm applause he received from the largely Asian-American audience.

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